Sen. Mark Warner at a rally at his headquarters in Richmond on Monday. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Does Mark Warner now owe his career to Virginia’s perennial Libertarian candidate, Robert Sarvis?

Sarvis’s Senate campaign touted a 10 percent solution to our political woes. If 10 percent of the voters would vote for him, then the Libertarians would automatically get a line on the Virginia ballot, a la Republicans and Democrats and keep the major party candidates honest.

Sarvis got barely a quarter of that number. But his 2.5 percent solution did work wonders, just not for him. Exit polls provide powerful evidence he attracted enough Republican protest votes to swing the election for Democratic Sen. Mark Warner.

The Libertarian’s 53,000 voters mostly came from younger voters, particularly white males, unhappy with President Obama’s leadership. They generally leaned independent. Very few (almost none, in fact) were Democrats. But a good chunk did label themselves Republicans.

Exit polls on fringe candidates are to be read with abundant caution. Yet it is clear the Sarvis Republican voter wanted to protest President Obama’s leadership. If Gillespie had been the only option, they most likely would have backed the GOP nominee. But Sarvis gave them a second option.

The result?  Instead of drowning in anti-Obama tidal wave running from the wind turbines off the Virginia coast all the way to the Alaskan oil fields, Mark Warner found a life-preserver in the Libertarian candidate.

Third-party protest voting is a great American tradition. The most memorable in recent times was Green Party candidate Ralph Nader sinking environmentalist Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election and handing the election (after a Supreme Court ruling) to George W. Bush.

That’s politics. But 2014 is apparently the first time in Virginia that a protest candidate decided the outcome of a major election. Some vocal Democrats disagree, blaming racism for Warner’s near-loss. According to this theory, white voters’ antipathy toward President Obama is skin-deep. But since his name didn’t appear on the ballot, they projected these prejudices on to Mr. Warner. Crying “racism” has become a cottage industry among too many this cycle.

Warner’s supporters do him no favors by blaming white people for his election-night troubles. Twenty-five years ago, Doug Wilder made history by prevailing in a far closer statewide race with a far higher percentage of white voter support. He didn’t blame racism for his narrow win. He praised voters for helping him make history.

Exit polls show Warner lacked any meaningful cross-over appeal to Republicans or independents. This defied Democrat’s accepted wisdom. Warner’s campaign touted his decade-old record as governor far more than the past six years in the Senate. Leaving this blank spot may have given Gillespie an opening to portray Warner’s Senate record as mere Obama cheerleading. The fact that independents split evenly and few Republicans backed Warner suggests that voters rejected his claim to be a bipartisan dealmaker.

Political elite have lost touch with the public, voters seem to think. Virginians wanted to make sure Warner got that message. Unhappiness with Washington is rampant across every political category.

Senator Warner started 2014 as a sure winner. But he seemingly survived on election night because of a third-party candidate. A month from now, the public isn’t going to care about the margin. Warner’s backers therefore would be wise to focus on the future since, like it or not, his image depends increasingly on Washington, not Richmond.